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Soc Sci Med. 2005 Dec;61(12):2628-38. Epub 2005 Jun 27.

"When the obvious brother is not there": political and cultural contexts of the orphan challenge in northern Uganda.

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  • 1Centre for International Health-University of Bergen, Armauer Hansens Building, N-5021 Bergen, Norway.


It is estimated that two million of Uganda's children today are orphaned primarily due to AIDS. While recognising the immense impact of HIV/AIDS on the present orphan problem, this article calls for a broader historic and cultural contextualisation to reach an understanding of the vastness of the orphan challenge. The study on which the article is based was carried out among the Langi in Lira District, northern Uganda, with a prime focus on the situation of orphans within the extended family system. The data were collected through ethnographic fieldwork (8 months); in-depth interviews with community leaders (21), heads of households (45) and orphans (35); through focus group discussions (5) with adult men and women caring for orphans, community leaders and with orphans; and also through documentary review. A survey was conducted in 402 households. The findings reveal a transition over the past 30 years from a situation dominated by 'purposeful' voluntary exchange of non-orphaned children to one dominated by 'crisis fostering' of orphans. Sixty-three percent of the households caring for orphans were found to be no longer headed by resourceful paternal kin in a manner deemed culturally appropriate by the patrilineal Langi society, but rather by marginalised widows, grandmothers or other single women receiving little support from the paternal clan. This transition is partly linked to an abrupt discontinuation of the Langi 'widow inheritance' (laku) practice. It is argued that the consequential transformations in fostering practices in northern Uganda must be historically situated through a focus on the effects of armed conflicts and uprooting of the local pastoral and cotton-based economy, which have occurred since the late 1970s. These processes jointly produced dramatic economic marginalisation with highly disturbing consequences for orphans and their caretakers.

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